Or Why We May Need More Math In Church

Mishneh Torah Hilchot Qiddush HaHodesh – Introduction

הלכות קדוש החדש. מצות עשה אחת והיא לחשב ולידע ולקבוע באיזה יום הוא תחלת כל חדש וחדש מחדשי השנה. וביאור מצוה זו בפרקים אלו.

The Laws of the Sanctification of the Month

There is a single mitzvah in this category and it is to calculate, to know, and to determine which day is the beginning of each and every month of the year.  This mitzvah will be explained in the following chapters.

I will begin with a confession, and that is that I am starting this project with the hopes of “unblocking” my writing.  I have several projects that I should be working on but am avoiding, and so I hope to get the words flowing with a little journal on the Rambam’s section on determining the new month.  So I confess to being blocked.

I’m not going to try to introduce the Mishneh Torah at the outset but bring up issues as we go along.  If you are among the dozens of people reading this and you decide you want a systematic background Halbertal’s book is real and spectacular.  I’m going to try to move through the Laws of the Sanctification of the Month in journal form.  Since I’m doing this to loosen the words in my head, it kind of is going to be about me.  Trying to rehearse a comprehensive view of the material is not going to help with what I need to do.

Like many people, I knew about the Mishneh Torah for a long time without realizing how wonderful it was.  When I began to explore Judaism and its books, I knew that there were several codes that one could consult if one needed to know what to do, but the whole idea of codes seemed pretty boring.  One doesn’t read a physiology textbook for fun (if “one” is normal), and with Mikra (the inside term for the Hebrew Bible) with its commentaries and with Talmud and philosophy why would anyone want to sit around reading codes?  I confess (again) that this was my own limited experience but this is what I was thinking.  (I had strong and stupid opinions.  I told Rabbi Burt Visotzky during my seminary admissions interview that I thought midrash was mostly a waste of time.)

Anyway, it was only when I started seminary and one of our seminar teachers, R. David Hoffman, assigned the introduction to the Mishneh Torah and our eyes fell upon the goal of the text (i.e. to replace all other rabbinic literature), and we learned that this book was the invention of a genre and to top it all off was never really equalled that I began to realize how myopic my view of codes was.

I suppose I should qualify all three of those claims.  It is disputed that Maimonides wanted to replace all previous rabbinic literature with the Mishneh Torah.  But he did write stuff like this (from the introduction):  

אלא דברים ברורים קרובים נכונים על פי המשפט אשר יתבאר מכל אלו החיבורים והפירושים הנמצאים מימות רבינו הקדוש ועד עכשיו. עד שיהיו כל הדינין גלויין לקטן ולגדול בדין כל מצוה ומצוה ובדין כל הדברים שתיקנו חכמים ונביאים. כללו של דבר כדי שלא יהא אדם צריך לחיבור אחר בעולם בדין מדיני ישראל אלא יהא חיבור זה מקבץ לתורה שבעל פה כולה עם התקנות והמנהגות והגזירות שנעשו מימות משה רבינו ועד חבור הגמרא וכמו שפירשו לנו הגאונים בכל חיבוריהם שחיברו אחר הגמרא. לפיכך קראתי שם חיבור זה משנה תורה. לפי שאדם קורא בתורה שבכתב תחלה ואחר כך קורא בזה

I’m not going to translate the whole thing, but the highlighted parts say, “In sum, one does not need any other composition whatsoever regarding the laws of Israel, only this summation of the entire Oral Torah (!)”, and “Therefore one could read (only) the written Torah (the Tanakh) and afterwards this book (!)”  Borrowing the title Mishneh Torah from, well, Moses’ own summation of the Torah a.k.a. the Book of Deuteronomy was also pretty audacious.  That there was nothing like Rambam’s code before probably requires less qualification, and the fact that subsequent codes are not as comprehensive is also pretty defensible, I think.  Anyone, it was with that introduction that I began to really groove to studying the Rambam.

Why I am fascinated by the laws for determining the month?  I’ve always been suspicious of the common assertion that there is a dichotomy between science and religion.  Most casual thinkers accept the formalization of this separation articulation by Stephen Jay Gould as Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA):  science gets to describe the natural world and religion gets to talk about morals.  That has always struck me as being based on a Christianized concept of religion, perhaps following in Augustine’s City of God/City of Man dichotomy.  I think that Judaism has a harder time with this dualism (or should have a harder time with this dualism given our “worldcenteredness”).  I think that Rambam’s presentation of these laws challenges that separation.  People who argue against prayer in public schools sometimes quip that prayer in school makes as much sense as math in church.  I am not in favor of prayer in public schools and I don’t go to church, but I think that it is hard to be a serious person while avoiding math.  Serious religions cannot avoid it either.

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